Friday, May 26, 2017

Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally ***

There is a broad spectrum between fiction and non-fiction. Historical fiction is somewhere in the middle. Some historical fiction is predominantly fiction drawing on the historical record primarily for the setting. [Disclosure, I am writing a novel like this set during the Thera explosion of the Minoan era on Crete.] Other historical fiction moves very close to non-fiction with historical figures as the main characters. Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally is of the latter type, focusing on Elizabeth Balcombe, a friend of Napolean during his exile on St. Helena. This is certainly a challenge as there is much published, both fiction and non-fiction about Betsy, including other memoirs.

I found this novel to read much like non-fiction, and thought it might have been more enjoyable if I had been a better student of Napolean. In fact, I didn't know where St. Helena was located until I read this book.

Monday, May 15, 2017

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell *****

Consider the progress made by literary women in the 40 years between Pride and Prejudice and North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. In the latter, protagonist Margaret Hale is more concerned about social issues (hunger and workers' rights) than domestic issues (marriage and dances). Margaret speaks directly to the men and successfully negotiates between the factory masters and the workers. It is Margaret's brother who is marked for life from a youthful indiscretion. While the men around Margaret seemed eager to see her married, she is not interested and turns down offers with ease. She also has no problem inheriting or managing a sizable estate.

Central to the plot is a strike in the northern industrial town of Milton. The plight of the workers in the strike-breaking, union busting climate is, similar to today.
how we all had to clem [hunger]...yet many went in every week at the same wage, till all were gone in that there was work for; and some went beggars all their lives at after.
the strike...must end in...the invention of some machine which would diminish the need of hands at all.
Margaret views the situation around her in terms of power and economics, who controls the soldiers and who has the capital to survive. She also sees herself as a person who can change the course of events, sometimes subtly...
Margaret did not want to encourage him to go on by replying to him, and so prolong the discussion.
Other times more directly, as when she confronts an angry mob of strikers on her own.

She also declares...
I shall never marry.
In the end, she makes the surprisingly contemporary conclusion:
But she had learnt...that she herself must one day answer for her own life, what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.
While Austen might have written of the plight of 19th-century women, Gaskell writes of women with agency and courage. Here in 1855, Margaret is a strong, intelligent women who would not be uncomfortable in the 21st century. She is contemporary of Dickens (who lived and died with a few years of Gaskell). Her perspective of 19th-centruy England is well worth reading.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain ***

Have you read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? How about The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County? And Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court? If you still want more Mark Twain, you might try Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain.

But I do not recommend it.

This short book starts with his famous description of the fabulous life of steamboat pilots on the Mississippi. The description of the training and prestige is fascinating. However, after the saga of the steamboat pilot, the remainder of the book is a hodgepodge of short anecdotes and histories of various towns along the Mississippi. The latter often include tedious listings of demographic and economic statistics. The dull reporting is mixed in with classic Mark Twain digressions, such as a rant against Walter Scott and a discussion of the lagniappe tradition in New Orleans, which was recently the subject of an NPR podcast.

Mercifully short and of mixed interest.

The final chapter has a great description of the Twin Cites in the late 19th century.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton ****

I imagine authors expected most (New York state) voters to be able to read Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton. These eighty-five essays in favor of the U.S.  Constitution were published in various newspapers between 8/27/1787 and 5/28/1788. The authors assumed the readers were familiar with European, Greek and Roman history and could follow legal arguments.

In some cases, the authors were prescient when they addressed the issues of the subtleties of corruption, concerns about fake news and deceptions, the size of the federal government, and the power of the courts. In other cases, the were naive and idealistic where they assumed a homogenous population of voters who were patriotic and concerned about integrity and reputation.

If they returned today, they would be most surprised by our mass communications. Underneath many arguments is the assumption of geographically local communities and the difficulty of know someone who you do not meet face-to-face. On the other hand, I doubt they would have been much surprised by the civil war or the various states rights conflicts.

The other surprise would be how much the federal government has acquired dominion of so many governing functions. The writers of these papers mostly thought of the federal government as doing that which could *ONLY* be done by a central authority (war, treaties, interstate conflicts) and little else.

Still a fascinating read.

Closing caveat: Do not put these documents on a pedestal. They close with strong statements against term-limits, the bill of rights, and specific protection for freedom of the press. All of these things happened and most agree they were important.

Trivia: Just as an example, they mention the difficulties for a widow to control her husband's assets, not as a problem, but as a common practice that all would be familiar with, just like the history of Rome.